Composition · Music Production · recording

Session 1 – Laying Down the “Bones” of a Recording

It has been a while since my last post and I’m so glad to be back. Tons of prep work has been going into the new release but right now, I’m excited to discuss with you the process of laying down the “bones” of each song. The “bones” or rhythm section usually consist of drums, percussion, bass as well as any supporting tonal instrument which provides a pulse, such as guitar or keyboard. This first step is vital as it establishes the feel, setting up a foundation whereby other parts can be overdubbed, such as vocals, lead guitar and further arrangements.

At Top of the World Studios, a premier space located in Yorktown Heights, NY, the rhythm section is recorded in a non traditional way. Art Halperin, the lead engineer, opts to set up bands in a optimally designed room and records them via a stereo mic array. Certain instruments are also captured directly into the DAW and then re-amped (i.e. played back through a room speaker and re-recorded at a later time). This option allows more flexibility in mixing, as well as provides a way to hone the sound of each instrument separately from the others. In these sessions, we decided to record the acoustic guitar, percussion and drums via the room mics while plugging the bass and electric guitar directly into the DAW. Initially we planned on also recording the bass through the room mics, however, the amplifier sympathetically vibrated the wires underneath the snare drum. With the exception of “Fault Lines,” all keyboards were recorded via MIDI.

Monitoring is a special challenge in a room with no isolation. For this reason, we decided to plug in the acoustic guitar, using its feed only as a way for us to hear it over the live drums. Since bass and keyboards were directly plugged in, we only heard them through the monitor headphones. The drummer and percussionist used a headphone type that cut out ambient sound while the bass player and I used vented headphones. The latter type contains ports which allow the ambient sounds to enter. This distinction proved to be helpful, as the drummer and conga player needed to attenuate their own performance while hearing our parts louder.

You may have heard of click tracks (aka metronomes) being utilized in recordings as a way for a rhythm section to keep steady tempo throughout a song. I opted against this option, as I wanted the natural feel of our playing to dictate the tempo. In rehearsals, I made certain to always sing my lead vocal with the band, which led us to a viable natural tempo for vocal phrasing. Much of my writing has tempo and meter changes, which makes using a click especially challenging. In this case, I’d rather have an adept drummer lead us into the new tempos and meters rather than have him or her be led by a click. Unfortunately, the minute tempo fluctuations that result do make post-production editing a challenge, as one cannot combine any takes that vary too much in timing. For this reason, I minimized editing the “bones” of any track.

If I happened to not use drums and bass for a song, I tended to use the rhythm guitar or piano as a foundation. In one such song named “Autumn Hymn”, I decided to perform solo on vocals and acoustic guitar first, as I found the feel of both occurring together successfuly defined the “bones” of the track. Without realizing it, that choice made mixing the album easier, as the vocal level and its relationship to the acoustic guitar became the model for vocal levels on every other song.

Regarding the keyboard recording, I opted to used sampling as opposed to a live piano. Art’s studio only has a keyboard controller and I wanted to perform with the band, having them react in real time to my rhythmic ideas. With the exception of “Fault Lines,” I captured all keyboard parts via MIDI and then experimented with piano patches to find the optimal tone and EQ for each track. Re-recording the MIDI at my home studio was also a nice option, as I was looking to develop certain phrasings even further. In the next blog post, I’ll be going over the overdubbing sessions and re-amping techniques. Thanks for reading!

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